14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 19 November 2018 – We saw the conflict coming. From the moment Jair Bolsonero won the elections in Brazil, Cuba’s official discourse increased in rhetoric against him and prepared public opinion for the rupture that was imminent.
The straw that broke the camel’s back for the Plaza of the Revolution was the statements by the president-elect in which he warned that he would change the conditions of the agreement under which more than 8,300 physicians from Cuba work in Brazil’s Mais Medicos (More Doctors) program.
Last Wednesday, tensions escalated to their highest point when the Cuban Minister of Public Health announced that he was cancelling the contract and removing his professionals from the South American country. The official notice, read out on all of the island’s the news programs, repeated that Bolsonaro’s threats would not be tolerated but deftly ignored some of his words. Particularly those where the rightist leader insisted that the Cuban doctors should receive their full salaries and be able to bring their families to stay with them while they were in the program.
The Cuban government has made medical missions a lucrative business. With professionals deployed in more than 60 countries, the money raised by this practice is Cuba’s largest source of foreign currency, estimated to exceed $11 billion annually.
In the case of Brazil, Havana pockets 75% of the 3,300 dollar salary Brazil pays for each doctor, while the health professionals only receive a quarter of the total. On the Island, in a bank account which they do not have access to, their “Cuban” monthly salary of about 60 dollars accumulates, which they can only collect if they return to the island.
Those who leave the Mais Medicos program under their own will are considered deserters and are banned from entering Cuba for eight years. During the time the Workers’ Party (PT) was at the head of the Brazilian government, the doctors who escaped from their contracts were pursued by the Brazilian police and could be returned to the Island if they were arrested. None were allowed to bring their family members to be with them during their missions, and they were often housed in overcrowded hostels shared with other doctors, nurses and hospital technicians.
Despite so many difficulties and the low earnings, the missions were very much desired by the doctors because they were able to buy goods that are not available in Cuban markets, and to make contacts that would later allow them to return to Brazil privately, with a contract to work in some clinic.
Beyond its ability to provide healthcare for many Brazilians in the poorest areas of the country, the Mais Medicos program hid a political operation to build support for the leftist Workers’ Party and guarantee it the votes of the lower classes. It was clear that Cuba’s interest in this outcome was not going to continue with Bolsonaro in charge, thus it was only a matter of time before Castroism removed its healthcare professionals from Brazil. It only remains now to ask how many of them will actually return to the island.
The president-elect of Brazil has announced that he will grant political asylum to all Cuban doctors who request it and it is expected that a considerable number will benefit from this offer. Those who do so will lose the right to return to their homeland for many long years, they will be called traitors and, most likely, their families on the island will be under pressure. The battle of the white coats has barely begun.
Note: This column was originally published in the Latin American edition of the Deutsche Welle chain.
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